Tuesday, May 21, 2019

How we see the rest of the world.

A while back I read a piece by David Wong that hit the nail on the head; at least for me. This is not a rehash of the 2016 election, it's a piece on how each side in this divided nation sees the other. The truths the author communicates are so apparent to me, and yet are unrecognizable to many on the other side of the divide.

"Nothing that happens outside the city matters!" they say at their cocktail parties, blissfully unaware of where their food is grown. Hey, remember when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans? Kind of weird that a big hurricane hundreds of miles across managed to snipe one specific city and avoid everything else. To watch the news (or the multiple movies and TV shows about it), you'd barely hear about how the storm utterly steamrolled rural Mississippi, killing 238 people and doing an astounding $125 billion in damage.
But who cares about those people, right? What's newsworthy about a bunch of toothless hillbillies crying over a flattened trailer? New Orleans is culturally important. It matters. To those ignored, suffering people, Donald Trump is a brick chucked through the window of the elites. "Are you assholes listening now?" 

I empathize with the author in many ways.

I was raised in the vast ocean of red America; on a cattle ranch in rural, Northern California. You know, the other California. The one without the sandy beaches and Facebook millionaires. In fact, the three room school I attended from first to eighth grade had just over 50 students K-8th. My graduating class was 8.

I have drawn a paycheck as a working cowboy. I can still rope, ride, and work cattle. I can weld, operated heavy equipment of all kinds, and in a pinch, I could build you a very basic house.

These days however, I work on a university campus in the tech field. Davis is a dark blue island in that red ocean of inland California. Along with all the skills, and experiences I gained on the ranch, I can also fusion-splice fiber optic cable smaller than the size of a human hair.

I am at home in the smallest cafe or backwoods bar in the middle of nowhere, talking to a diesel mechanic, school teacher, or oil field worker. I am also perfectly comfortable in a 26th floor office in San Francisco talking to a CEO about a million dollar project management proposal. I'm also cool with hanging out in the LBGT center on campus talking to someone with half their hair shaved off and the other side colored blue and pink.

If you are cool to me, I'll be cool to you. And even if you're not cool to me, I'll probably give you the benefit of the doubt, you might just be having a really crappy day.

Other than my views on the Second Amendment, I was quite liberal when I was a young man.

I'm not sure how, given my background and rural upbringing, I developed my outlook on those around me. Maybe I was just excited to meet anyone new. After all, my nearest friend lived from grade school lived miles away.

To me, people are just people. I take each individual as they come along. Well, at least I try to have that outlook. Sometimes, I fall into the trap of grouping people into "them" categories, but I try hard not to.

My point is, I know both sides in this divided nation. They are all just people. Some I agree with politically, some I do not. Some are racists, some are prejudiced, some are hopelessly ignorant of the way the world works, and some are so stuck in their "us" vs "them" mentality, it's hard to have an honest conversation with them.

Now, I know those of you on the left will read that last part and be thinking, "Ahah! I knew it. You just admitted those rural hillbillies are bunch of bigoted homophobes." While you folks on the right will read that and think, "Ahah, I knew it. You just admitted those hipster, social justice morons are close minded and prejudiced."

Guess what? You are both right, and both wrong.

Here is what is happening, at least the way I see it.

We use the most extreme examples of behavior to make the case, both for our side, and against the other side. We get stuck in our own cocoons of media and friends, where we become isolated from hearing what is happening in the rest of the world. Just look at your Facebook feed.

Before the election, the Super Trumpers would post click-bait articles labeled "Hillary get destroyed by a veteran" or Hillary fans would post "Trump supporter gets owned by The Daily Show".  It was, and still is, the primary focus of the media. Give them what they want.

We tend to avoid news that is contrary to our views. We 'Hide' people who post stories on Facebook we disagree with, or we just 'Unfriend' them. We dismiss articles or essays if we disagree with the headline without ever reading the piece.

The simple fact is, we don't want our opinions challenged, let alone changed. We don't want to admit that we might be wrong. Again, let's not be thinking, yeah, you guys over on the other side just don't get it, I'm talking to you too. I must include myself in this as well.

If I read a piece written by a person on the far left, I immediately start picking apart their premise, their facts, and their points. I am not reading the piece to understand their point of view, I am reading it with the idea of defending my own point of view. That is a mistake.

I should be trying to understand where they are coming from. Do they have a point I never considered?  It doesn't mean they are right, maybe they're full of beans. I just want to know how they came to their opinion. Look, if we don't start to understand the other side, even when they are wrong, maybe especially when they are wrong, we are not going to talk about important things. Again, this is a huge mistake.

The easiest way for people to engage with those they disagree with is in a binary, I'm right - You're wrong attitude. It protects us from what we fear the most: Being wrong. That is our blind spot. It is where our reactive brain jumps in, and slams the door on any well thought-out opposition to our way of thinking.

When we look at every major news story from 'our side' without trying to find out what the truth is, that's when we stop thinking and just go into that Good/Bad, Right/Wrong mode. This is the mode most of the noisy people on your Facebook feed are stuck in.

We will  keep reading our side's slant on the coverage and look for stories that point to how 'right' we are. This is called confirmation bias. It is an easy trap to fall into, but it is dangerous if you are unaware it is happening to you.

As a nation, if we keep using the most extreme examples to define the other side, we will not see the flaws in our side, and that is even worse. At least we hold a little influence over 'our side'. They should, in theory, listen to the people who vote for them, give them money, and support their political goals. Well, this is how it should work.

Why do we point to the extremes? Extremes are sexy. Extremes are attention getting. They are what leads every newscast, every newspaper headline, and what drives most of our political discourse. Very seldom do I ever get into discussions about what is going to happen when our historically low interest rates go back up. No one seems to know, or care, the amount of interest we pay each year on the 21 trillion dollars of debt will soon be more than we spend on the entire defense budget.

No, what I get when I talk politics is, Trump is a racist. or everyone who supported Hillary is a communist. Trump Good, or Orange Man Bad. That is our world today.

This why conservatives look at a young, socialist like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and think, "How stupid are the people who voted for her?" They can't understand the reason she was elected. They don't understand the district she represents. The NY 14th Congressional District is the Bronx and Queens. It  has a 29% Democrat advantage in party registration. It is deep blue. Think of it as rural Wyoming in reverse.

The people in that district are city people. They use government transportation everyday. Chances are someone in their house or a family member works for the City, State or Federal government. Someone in their family is probably signed up for some sort of subsidy or assistance program. They look at the government as a part of their lives. They want it do more for them, and make things better for them individually.

You are not going to win the democratic primary in that district by talking about balancing the budget or working with Donald Trump to get legislation passed that might help your constituents. You are going to win by going as far to the left as you can without calling for outright communism. AOC is giving the people what they want, or at least what they think they want.

The same thing happens on the other side. When progressives look at Trump all they see is an angry, racist, bigot who lies all the time, and wants to turn back the clock to the 1950s. They see all his supporters as outright racists, or at least closet racists. They cannot fathom any reason at all why anyone with a brain could ever vote that man.

Rural and suburban America sees Donald Trump a little differently.  They are not government-centric voters. Their only interaction with the government is when they pay taxes, go to the DMV or have to wade through the mountains of paperwork to get a building permit for that new redwood deck in the backyard. These people look at government as a necessary evil. Something to be avoided.

This is 180 degrees from a working, single mom whose child gets a free taxpayer provided lunch at school, lives in a subsidized apartment, gets Home Energy Assistance Program; Utility Bill Assistance through a government subsidy, and is enrolled in a few different types of public assistance like SNAP. Now, I do not mean that most people in that district live that way, but chances are, you know someone or have a family member in a similar situation.

It all comes down to the lens you see government through.

When Trump does something, anything, both groups look at the event through their respective lenses.
As Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons likes to say, they are watching the same movie on two different screens.

Lets say Trump signs an executive order rolling back an Obama era order about the Clean Water Act definitions. The progressives go nuts. To them, this just proves that Trump doesn't care about people, and doesn't mind if the water is poisoned, as long as his big-business friends can make more profit. Also, Putin must have ordered him to this anyway.

To the Trump supporters, big government is bad, and any Obama regulation is probably terrible anyway. If you live in the country or work around farmers, you know how far the EPA was stepping over the line. To them, Trump is just making it easier to grow the economy and make more jobs for America. Same movie, two different screens.

Look, I don't have any answers to this predicament. Well, maybe just one. As much as you will hate it, you need to start calling fouls on your team.

When the president does, or tweets, something that is stupid, or it's an outright lie, call him on it.  Mr. President, that kind of tweet, or that decision is not helping your cause, which is my cause. I wish you would stop it. You will find that when you call balls and strikes on both sides, you will earn a bit of respect from your progressive friends. Just a tiny bit, but it's a start.

What is even better is you can now go up to your progressive friend when Nancy Pelosi does or says something stupid, and ask them if they think what she said is okay. "Do you really want stand behind her statement, or do you wish she had not said it?" You can ease into it, "I know you still like her, but that is really a dumb thing say right?" Don't beat them over the head with it, but just get them thinking that 'their side' is not 100% right all the time.

Then go back to holding your side accountable.

We all want to 'win' the argument. Sometimes we want to win all all costs.

We start calling people terrible names, personally berating friends, and if you're mad enough, just being a straight up asshole. That isn't winning anyone to your side. In fact, that just confirms to them what kind of person makes up the other side.

It's easy to play the 'Whatabout' game with people. What about when Obama did this? What about when Bush did that? It rarely changes anyone's opinion.

Let's start a dialogue with people. Let's try to imagine how they think. Why do they believe what they believe? Then let's ask them.

There is a catch. You will have to do a lot more reading and watch a lot less cable news. 

Hey, it's a start.